If you plan a trip to Paris, it goes without saying, you have to make a side trip out to Versailles to experience the history and grandeur of France. You know, there’s something kinda special about driving around the corner in Versailles and coming across King Louis’ little country home; it’s just the most impressive palace I’ve ever seen. But France is like that. It sort of lures you in with its quaintness and charm and then BAM, knocks your socks off! Well, Versailles is great. It’s an easy day trip from Paris and there’s a lot in this home away from home of France’s infamous royalty.
The Chateau at Versailles, where the art and architecture of acclaimed artisans was united with the abundance and arrogance of the aristocracy, is well known in the pages of history. Originally built in 1623 by Louis XIII as a rural hunting lodge, the king loved the chateau so much, that he decided to enlarge it.
When his son, Louis XIV, ascended to the throne, he felt that Versailles was too small and too plain, so he began embellishing the chateau and work continued on Versailles all during his reign.
Spending half of France’s treasury and employing over 30,000 workers, Louis XIV’s grand vision for Versailles nearly bankrupted the country he loved and was so proud to rule. More construction was done under Louis XV, and then again during Napoleon’s residence at Versailles, resulting in the magnificent palace we see today.
With 12 miles of enclosing walls, 26 acres of roof and over 2000 windows, Versailles set the standard for royal residences in Europe and throughout the world. It takes two days just to get through what you get to see on the public tours, so be sure to let’s hit the ground running or make this several trips to avoid blisters!
I’ll give you a few tips on what to bring here. You definitely need comfortable shoes, you’re gonna walk a lot and on uneven, well traveled cobblestones. You bring an umbrella to keep from getting sunburned and too hot. Water, gotta bring water. A few snacks and you’ll be all set.
Now you’ll notice a gold looking gilt balcony up on the second level. That’s the King’s bedroom, actually on the second floor, but they call it the first floor. That’s where His Majesty used to come out and talk to his people. I think that’s why the courtyard is so huge—because all the people use to kind of gather around in the morning. The moment you step inside Versailles, you’re transformed into a different time and a different way of life. You can almost see the clouds of dust wafting from powdered wigs and smell the aroma of perfumed bosoms confined in unforgiving corsets and feel the endless yards of flowing silk and gold embellished fabrics adorning young courtesans. Wait a minute, wait a minute, I’m starting to sound like a romance novel…that HAPPENS at Versailles!
There are 67 staircases, 6,000 paintings, 5,000 pieces of furniture and almost 300 years of history which tend to titillate and overwhelm the senses. There’s just so much to see and hear and do and touch…mon Dieu! It’s quite overwhelming. If you’re like me, and not big on following a crowd and listening to a tour guide go on and on, then you may want to spring for a private tour, or do a little homework first.
Grab a brochure or buy a guide book, as you’ll start out from one huge the drawing room and walk to another. There’s the Venus drawing room. Walking through the Venus drawing room, you come to the Diana drawing room. The rooms come one right after another. Number 7 is the Mars drawing room, take a look at the ceiling.
Room number 8 is the Mercury drawing room, which was also a bed chamber, you can see by the bed, notice that it is quite a bit shorter than our beds today!
The guide has a little map that has little numbers corresponding to each room, so if you get lost you’ll know where you are. Just a little side note, when we say this is the Mars or the Mercury room, it’s the picture on the ceiling that depicts the name of the room. For example, there is a picture of Apollo in the Apollo drawing room, also the used as the Throne room, because it has a throne and the Apollo room because it’s Apollo up on the ceiling in the painting. Don’t miss the throne room, here is where the original famous painting of Louis XIV, the one you’ve seen everywhere, is kept!
Up next is the most famous of all rooms in the Palace of Versailles. Originally built as an Italian terrace, the Hall of Mirrors is the most famous and certainly the most spectacular. Over 200 feet long, the Hall of Mirrors took ten years to build and decorate. The idea here is this: seventeen arched windows overlooking the gardens are reflected on the opposing wall by the same number of simulated windows made out of paneled mirrors. These mirrors are framed in brass covered with gold.
Twenty-four torches and twelve chandeliers, each adorned with Bohemian crystal, lighted the way for the swarms of lords and commoners who traversed the hall on a daily basis. And these definitely contribute to the WOW factor! Topping off the grandeur of the hall are the paintings on the ceiling, which depict various battles in which the King and France emerged victorious! On either end of the Hall of Mirrors are the Hall of War and the Hall of Peace respectively.
The Hall of Mirrors is where the Treaty of Versailles was signed. The ceiling has pictures of Louis XIV during his reign here. Now all the chandeliers are electric, but can you imagine when they were all candles, that’s fantastic! Wonder how many candles they went through a night? Joust down from the Hall of Mirrors is the entrance to the King’s bedchamber. It runs just about 200 feet, I’d be dead on me feet just trying to get to bed. Now you’re at the far end of the Peace room.
Now you have the real door to the King’s bedroom. This is where he slept and recovered from all the walking he had to do. Located in the exact center of the Chateau, the King’s bedchamber was the center of activity during Louis XIV’s reign. It was here at 8:30 AM each and every morning the first valet of the chambre awoke the King with the words “It is time, Sire,” thus beginning the ceremony of ‘levee’, the ceremonial rising of the monarch that involved 100 men in total. He’d then go out on the balcony to address his people.
The chapel is adjacent to the bed chamber. Following his address, the King would come through the doors every morning, and walk out. The lower court would be on the lower level watching mass, the higher court would be all around the balcony. The King would come out and stand right on the same carpet that is still there today.
Kind of eerie to see it exactly the way the King saw it! Inspirational even! With its elegant Corinthian columns reaching towards the heavens, those beautiful frescoes adorning the vaulted ceiling, and a gilded pipe organ fit for a King, the Royal Chapel was the ideal setting for the most significant religious events during the French monarchy. Designed by the famed architect Mansart, the Royal Chapel took ten years to build and decorate and was the site of Louis XVI’s marriage to Marie Antoinette. During Louis XVI’s reign, the congregation stood on the ground floor and followed the mass facing the King, NOT the altar!
The gardens at Versailles are just about the only thing I can think of that rival the beauty and enormity of the chateau itself. If you go by numbers alone, 2000 acres of grounds, 27 miles of trellises, 200,000 trees, and 210,000 flowers planted every year! Wow! You wanna hear more? Fifty fountains with 620 fountain nozzles using 21 miles of water conduits and consuming over 3500 cubic meters of water per hour during a full play of the fountains. Can you imagine paying that water bill? Honestly, such beauty can’t be quantified by facts and figures; it’s the sights and sounds and smells of the gardens that impress you the most. Take a look for yourself.
With miles of roads on the grounds, the horse drawn carriages are a recent (and welcome) addition to Versailles. In Louis XIV’s time, fountain guards were ordered to whistle when the King approached so the fountains could be fully turned on. It’s good to be king!
Just down the road, the Grand Trianon was built during the reign of Louis XIV as a weekend getaway, and 200 years later served as a residence for Napoleon. Through the years, it’s hosted many celebrated guests, including Russian Czar Peter the Great! Today it still serves as the official residence for visiting heads of state! Inside, the gallery, built by Mansart and once used as a dining room, preserves its original decorations and is a great place to ‘experience’ old Versailles.
What’s interesting about this gallery is all the paintings tell the story of the original gardens. What they had in the gardens were what they called a Bosque. It’s like you’re going into the garden and you walk into this little private room in the garden that you don’t know what’s in there until you walk in. All of a sudden, you go in and you see these beautiful fountains, something they say is going to surprise you and you go, “Oh, that’s great.” Then you walk out of that bosque and you go through the gardens like a little maze until you walk into another little part of the garden, into another bosque and you go, “Oh!” And there’s another fountain or something different. So all the paintings in the gallery tell the story of the original bosques that were in the gardens. They’re not all there now, but you can go in and have a look at one if you’re lucky.
While there, you may get to see something you don’t get to see every day. Napoleon’s bedroom. He slept in that exact bed. And, I mean it, you don’t see it everyday, it’s not open, you have to call for an appointment. The bed is short, not because Napoleon was, but because in those days, people slept sitting propped up. Didn’t want to look like they died in their sleep so they say!
If you’re like me, you’re probably totally confused, so let’s try to encapsulate the history of Versailles in a few paragraphs. The big palace is where the kings lived and did their business. The Trianon was the pink building where Louis XIV came on the weekends to relax and where, 200 years later, Napoleon lived, when they thought about bringing the capital of France to Versailles. Now the Petite Trianon is where Louis XV brought all of his mistresses and where Marie Antoinette lived for a while and where, 200 years later, Josephine, Napoleon’s Josephine, moved in and lived as well. Got it?
The Petite Trianon was originally built as a “Royal Hideout” where King Louis XV could escape the rigors of court. But it’s best known as the home away from home for Marie Antoinette, who upon becoming Queen at age 19, transformed the Petite Trianon into the exquisite showpiece it is today. To fully appreciate the history and grandeur of Versailles, you have to rewind a bit. So, drive a few miles back towards Paris and visit the town of St. Germain-en-Laye, St. Germain for short. The birthplace of Louis XIV, it’s where it all began. So, “Once upon a time in St. Germain, there was born a King,”…but you can take it from there. The guidebooks don’t say you have to come here; so let it be said, I’m telling you, you HAVE to come to St. Germain. It’s like a small version of Versailles.
Versailles is just on the other side of the royal forest and St. Germain’s only a 20 to 30 minute drive from Paris. You’re gonna love it, it’s exactly what you want to see when you come to France.
One of the principal seats of the French Court, the Chateau de St. Germain-en-Laye is one of the most historically significant and beautiful buildings in all of France. Since the 12th century, the various chateaus and chapels erected at St. Germain have served as a royal residence, a military prison, a museum and most recently a hotel.
But St. Germain is most famous as the birthplace of The Sun King – Louis XIV, who was born in the Chateau-Neuf in 1638. A young Mary Stuart also lived there for 10 years, until she married François II in 1558. The various dwellings here have been demolished and re-built numerous times over the centuries. Only the Pavillon-Henri IV survives today, as a hotel where guests can get a taste of royal R and R! This hotel is also where Alexandre Dumas wrote “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.” I loved those movies!
The white part of the house is the old section where Louis XIV was born. The red brick is the new part where the hotel is. But there’s a plaque on the front door that says ‘this is where they invented Bernaise sauce.’ It’s kind of like the French version of the biggest ball of string.
St. Germain has just the thing for our little tourists of tomorrow. TOTS for short! Called Parc Asterix after the famous French comic strip characters, it’s a theme park that is loved by visitors since it opened in 1989.There’s a midway full of games for all skill levels, where everyone’s a winner…well, maybe not everyone, but you’ll still have fun! Don’t forget the rides – there’re thrills and spills and coasters on hills. From the little tots to the big shots in your family, I’m sure there’s something here to turn your stomach inside out! Ahhh, the bumper cars, my personal favorite. Reminds me of driving on the Champs L’Eysée! There’s a good haunted house full of spooky characters! And at the end of the day everyone’s sure to have a smile, or if you’re lucky, maybe even a stolen kiss! Ooh la la!
Since we’re just on the outskirts of Paris, let’s hop on the train and head into town to continue that little shopping trip we started! Place Vendome is the top spot for high-end merchandise, and a great place to start! Once a neighborhood full of high-class hotels and homes for bankers, Place Vendome, today, is home to some of the most distinguished and elegant shops and boutiques.
Break out your credit cards, because the quality is TOPS and so are the prices! Go ahead…check it out…aren’t you on vacation? Ka-ching! Don’t worry about how you’ll get your new purchases home, most stores will ship them to the states for you, saving the value added tax in the transaction. That’s a bargain, right? See? We’re saving money already!
Dominating the place, is the Colonne de la Grande Armee, also called: “the statue in the middle”, constructed in 1806 to replace an equestrian statue of Louis XIV. Over 120 feet high, the column is made of bronze, made from the metal of over 1200 Russian and Austrian cannons captured at the battle of Austerlitz in 1805. That was a major meltdown! The statue of Napoleon at the top is a copy of the original, which was destroyed by Royalists in 1814.
Moving on, another great place for shopping is in the Passages Couverts, meaning “covered passage.” Paris is famous for these indoor ‘shopping malls’ or arcades. There’re quite a few of them and they’re all different, so you have to shop them all! Hunt for bargains or indulge, it’s not how much you spend that matters, it’s how much fun you have while spending it! Well, I keep telling myself that anyway. Don’t forget gifts for those poor unfortunate souls we left at home…And while you’re at it, you deserve a treat yourself! You know what I say, when you love a place so much you hate to leave it, why not take some of it back with you!?
And who could resist an indoor/outdoor antique market? Maybe it is time to do some redecorating! Don’t forget to haggle…how good’s your Français!? Ahhh…Shopping in Paris, I’m a happy girl! Okay, I know you’re dragging, but no matter how tired you get after a full day in Paris, you have to see it after dark!
Whether you take a scenic boat cruise on the Seine or an after-dinner stroll through the parks, Paris is truly magical after sunset. Even the monuments take on a whole new presence at night. Ah the beauty and romance of it all, “C’est magnifique!” After just one night in Paris, you’ll understand how “The City of Lights” got its name and why it’s one of my favorite cities in the world! For a great view of Paris at night, how about from the Georges V Hotel, my favorite? You can stay overnight in lavishness, or just take in the view before heading back to the countryside.
Then, up the next morning to finish up back at the ranch, I mean, that little hunting lodge in the country Louis built! Versailles…what an amazing place! Or should I say… palace! After spending a day or two wandering the chateau and grounds of Versailles, it’s really hard to leave, but all good things must come to an end…and there are other sites to see…so let’s just take one more quick look around.
I discovered that in the early days of Versailles, proper attire was required for those wishing to visit the Grand Apartment, so if you showed up at Versailles without a hat and a sword, you could rent one at the front gate. Just like getting a tie at a snooty restaurant today! And another thing, monks were not allowed in! Was it the tie thing? And here’s something else…The very first hot air balloon ever to fly was launched from the forecourt of Versailles in 1783. That’s amazing! What a show that must have been! Versailles Trivia, ah, I’ve got a million of ‘em! Did you know there was a secret passageway that ran from the Queen’s private apartments to those of the King, and part of it still remains today? It was through this passageway that Marie Antoinette escaped the rioters during the Revolution! Lastly, the garden façade of the central part of the chateau is architecturally deceptive because there are no rooms behind the windows on the top floor. They actually mask the structural supports for the ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors. Sneaky, huh!
My favorite rooms in the chateau are the salons that run one after another. You can almost hear a harpsichord playing in the background as the pitter patter of young courtiers chasing giggling courtesans rings in your ears, no wait a minute, that’s my cell phone…okay, must be time to leave.
Do we really have to? Oh well, we’ve got plenty of memories to remember Versailles by and you can always see it again in some of your favorite movies. What’s really special is you come here and you see the paintings of how life used to be and you come out in the gardens and it hasn’t changed, it looks exactly the same.
You know, you’re walking where Josephine and Napoleon and Louis XIV and XV did; it’s really special. Fantastic scenery, fantastic architecture and fantastic memories, what else do you need on a fantastic family vacation?